Remember the days when Johnny Damon was the fastest player in the Yankees’ lineup? They didn’t even carry much speed on the bench. That has changed in the past few years. It started, really, when Brett Gardner began to play regularly. He and Curtis Granderson do possess pure speed tools, as does Eduardo Nunez. And, because stealing bases isn’t all about pure speed, the Yankees have a few other options strewn throughout the roster. They’ll never be a burner team, but they do have enough legitimate base stealers for a lineup mostly built on power.
In his two years as a full-time player Gardner has proven himself as one of MLB’s most prolific bag swipers. He stole 47 in 2010, fourth most in the league, and then swiped the second most last season with 49. His 49 last year is made all the more impressive, because his OBP was considerably lower in 2011 than it was in 2010. That might be taken as a sign of his progress on the base paths.
At the same time, Gardner hasn’t been the most efficient base stealer. He got caught 13 times last year, fourth most in the bigs. Even still, he hovered right around an 80 percent success rate. He was, however, a bit more efficient in 2010, successfully swiping bats 84 percent of the time. If he can get back to that level, while attempting steals at a slightly greater frequency than he did in 2011 (which probably means an OBP closer to 2010), the Yankees will have one of the best, if not the best, base stealing weapons in the league.
Maybe it’s because I don’t pay as close attention to the minors as Mike, but I never remember Eduardo Nunez being a burner in the minors. Perhaps that’s because he wasn’t quite efficient once his name starting coming up in prospect talks. he did steal 19 in AA in 2009, but he got caught seven times. In 2010 things seemed to come together, as he swiped 23 bags in 28 tries at AAA, and was successful in all five of his attempts during his brief major league stint.
Last year he became a true weapon on the base paths. He swiped 22 bags while getting caught six times, which put him near the 80 percent mark. He seems to have a decent instinct when breaking from first base, which helps him even on good throws. A little more refinement in that regard can make him a better weapon on the base paths in 2012. He could get some chances both as a starter and a pinch runner; if Andruw Jones or Raul Ibanez get on base late in games, Girardi probably shouldn’t hesitate to pinch run. If only they had a decent fielding fourth outfielder, we could even add Nick Swisher to that list.
When Baseball America scouted Curtis Granderson before his debut in 2004, they said that he was “not a big home run or stolen base threat.” In 2006 he started to prove the first part wrong, belting 19 homers. He further proved that wrong in 2007 when he hit 23 homers and stole 26 bases — and was only caught once. Since then Granderson’s stolen base numbers have fluctuated a bit, but he remains a mostly effective base swiper.
Last year he got caught a bit too often, 10 times in 35 attempts (71 percent). For his Yankees career he’s 37 for 49, which is just over 75 percent. Given his spot in the order he’s probably not going to swipe a ton. But if he picks his spots like he did in 2010, he can sometimes sneak into scoring position, leaving plenty of opportunities for Cano, A-Rod, and Teixeira to drive him in.
No, Martin is not a speed demon. In fact, he hasn’t attempted more than 10 stolen bases since 2009. But he appears to know what he’s doing when he does swipe a bag. He proved that on Opening Day last year, effortlessly taking a base on Justin Verlander. He made nine more attempts throughout the season, getting caught just twice. He’ll never win a crown, and he’ll almost certainly never steal more than 20, as he did in the 2007 season. But he can seemingly pick his spots well. That’s pretty much all you can ask from a catcher.
In the past both Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter provided threats when at first base. Jeter has cut down on his attempts in the last few years. After stealing 30 in 35 attempts during he 2009 season, he stole 18 in 23 attempts in 2010 and then 16 in 22 attempts last year. You can look at that as him slowing down, but he did feature similar numbers in 2007 and 2008, coming off a 34-steal 2006 season. Rodriguez used to be a paragon of base stealing efficiency, especially after his 40-40 season in 1998. But in the last two years he’s combined for just eight stolen bases in 11 attempts. He gets good reads, but he won’t be going often.
Having guys like Gardner and Nunez is a boon for the Yankees, a team that in previous seasons didn’t have that kind of speed. Having one starter and one guy off the bench helps create a more well-rounded base stealing strategy. It helps, too, that there are a few players for whom Girardi shouldn’t hesitate to pinch run late in games. Granderson is a bit of a bonus. If he, along with Jeter, Martin, and Rodriguez, can pick spots here and there to take a free base, the Yankees will be a bit more well rounded with their offense. That’s a valuable feature for an offense built mostly on power.